A CrossFit participant lifting an “Atlas Stone.” (Photo from CrossFit Instagram account)

CrossFit, the popular group fitness regimen that members half-jokingly call a “cult,” is much more than the latest get-ripped-quick fad, according to a recent study my colleague Ted Butryn and I conducted out of San José State University. CrossFit’s massive growth from one gym in Northern California in the early 2000s to over 13,000 worldwide in 2017 has sparked fierce debate about the program’s safety and efficacy, and disrupted an industry that has for decades been built on selling the superficial aestheticism of bodybuilding and aerobics. Instead of wading into the ongoing debate about CrossFit’s methods, our study sought to understand the social significance of CrossFit in a moment when work is becoming increasingly sedentary and technologically dependent, especially in the Silicon Valley area where I spent five months as an ethnographer in two CrossFit gyms. Our results showed that CrossFit portends a deeper angst about the purpose of physical bodies in a world that is rapidly devaluing physical labor, particularly for a well-educated white-collar workforce.

Although CrossFit uses the same class-based structure of recent fitness trends such as Zumba and yoga, CrossFit does not adhere to any single type of exercise but rather achieves results – and a fiercely loyal membership base – by encouraging competition during each unique “workout of the day,” or WOD. These intense sessions, which may last as much as 45 minutes or as little as two, mix and match exercises from different athletic disciplines, including weightlifting, running, and gymnastics. Some of the more memorable WODs are even given feminine names (a practice CrossFit’s originator has likened to the weather service’s naming of severe storms), or named after fallen law enforcement officers and soldiers as a form of honor. For example, arguably the most infamous CrossFit WOD is called “Fran,” a deceptive workout composed of 45 total reps each of 95-pound barbell thrusters (a squat-press movement) and pull-ups, which may take a trained athlete only a few minutes to complete but perhaps an hour or more to recover from.

All WODs are timed or scored by accumulated repetitions, with some gyms even instituting penalties of extra exercise should members forget to count their reps or check the clock when finishing a WOD. Coaches record these scores publicly on whiteboards in the gym or on social media sites, providing members a real-time ranking of their performance across different classes in the same gym. Although the exercises here are not necessarily new to the fitness industry, they have been repackaged to capitalize on an emerging desire for exercise to produce something more meaningful than bulging biceps and toned buttocks.

For example, most CrossFit exercises typically embody what coaches call “functional movements”—whole body complex movements that mimic real-world actions. During my stint as a CrossFitter, the other participants and I performed “farmer’s carries,” tire flips, sledgehammer swings, and other movements that felt more like construction work than recreational exercise. Compounding this mimicry of manual labor was the fact that both gyms inhabited defunct industrial warehouses, and thus our faux work in the gym’s parking lot often impeded actual work—tow trucks and delivery vehicles trying to reach neighboring auto repair shops. Additionally, CrossFit shuns most technologies found in larger commercial gyms: exercise machines, mirrors, saunas, Pilates equipment, wearable activity trackers, and demarcated rooms for specific exercise methods.

However, one would be remiss to think these gyms’ neo-Luddite tendencies predict a similar disdain of consumerism; in 2010, CrossFit Inc. signed a long-term marketing deal with Reebok as part of the apparel company’s strategy to return to its fitness roots. At the gyms I visited, post-WOD conversations often gravitated toward the latest CrossFit gear, including camouflaged Reebok shoes, ball-bearing jump ropes, sophisticated training gloves, and other usually expensive must-haves. One of the coaches I met wore a shirt featuring a caricature of a person on an elliptical machine with a bolded “FAIL” written underneath. The implied failure was not that the elliptical is inherently dysfunctional, but that a mindless hour of television while gyrating on an exercise machine robbed the body of its own machine-like autonomy.

Participants I spoke to echoed these sentiments, labeling their previous experiences at bigger commercial gyms as pointless and boring, even though those gyms provided more amenities than did the CrossFit gym and at a fraction of CrossFit’s nearly $200/month cost. Participants explained that CrossFit gave exercise (and their bodies) a functional purpose beyond merely fitness and health. After CrossFit, participants felt their bodies could run, jump, and lift more effectively, even though they may never need that increased ability in the normal course of their life and work. The gym also provided daily accountability through shared suffering, as every participant in a class exercised together, regardless of gender, age, or ability. Thus, the real driver of achievement was not an authoritarian coach barking orders, but a sense of social coercion diffused among participants and reinforced daily by the gym’s leaderboard.

Our study relied on work by German sociologist and historian Henning Eichberg, who sadly died in April at the age of 74. In his many writings on sport, he argued that the adoption of new methods like those of CrossFit indicated an underlying shift in social behavior that precipitated the change. In other words, while CrossFit is a reactionary movement to the aestheticism of the 80s and 90s, it also manifests a deeper anxiety about the disappearing utility of the body in an increasingly technologized society.

The postindustrial CrossFit space allows for the reclamation of the body’s raw physical ability in a moment when individual physicality has never mattered less. Thus, once occupied by hard labor for economic gain, these gym spaces now peddle a surrogate industrial experience to a clientele who regularly avoid physical labor outside the gym.

Matt Crockett (matt.crockett@sjsu.edu) is a lecturer at San José State University, where he teaches physical fitness and nutrition, stress and health, and sport sociology.

Dr. Ted Butryn (theodore.butryn@sjsu.edu) is the Interim Director of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society, and Social Change (ISSSSSC) at San José State University, where he is a Professor of sport sociology and psychology. He is also the Graduate Coordinator for the university’s Department of Kinesiology.